The small things that matter…

I’m sure you can take that title in many different ways, but I have a specific thought in mind – which is probably not what you expect.  And yes, it does eventually come back to science.

About a year and a half ago, the Genome Sciences Centre renovated its lunch room and took out the ping pong table.  Having lost my best procrastination tool, and probably most of the exercise I was getting, I decided it was time to return to fencing, which I’d done in high school and my first year of undergrad.  There’s a fencing club about a 10 minute walk from my house, which makes it pretty convenient too.

After about a year of participating in the intermediate classes on Mondays, I’ve now started going to the free fencing sessions on Thursday.  What’s immediately obvious is that there are two groups of fencers – generally those that are young (<20 years old) and have been fencing for probably less than 5 years, most of whom show up on Mondays, and the older group, most of whom have been fencing more than a decade or two and clearly don’t need lessons anymore. I usually do reasonably well against the younger group – and I’m absolutely slaughtered by the older group.  No surprise.  The older fencers have better technique and that will always win against speed and agility.

In my first match last night, I was devastated 5-1 by a guy who offers private lessons.  No big surprise really, but, in sheer frustration, I stepped back and spent a few minutes watching him in his next match.  Superficially, we do the same things, but upon careful observation I noticed that the biggest difference was simply that he held his blade 15 cm lower, covering his lower body more efficiently.  That’s it.  Just a tiny change in how you stand.

With nothing to lose, I switched my position to mirror his and immediately went from outright losing my matches with the older group to tying them.  I even saw frustration on my opponents faces now and then…. and I held the Monday evening instructor, who always wins against me without breaking a sweat, to a draw. (Normally you don’t draw in fencing, but the wire in my blade broke when we were tied at 4.  Good enough for me!) All in all, I’m thrilled with the change – and have fewer poke marks to show for it today!

Of course, I frequently use fencing as a metaphore for science, so I’ve been thinking an awful lot about mentors and having good examples to follow today – and how that fits into my future career.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be thrust into an environment where I’m surrounded by people who excel at their field.  Now, I think it’s up to me to watch and learn.

For me, this translates into a question of what guidance I’m missing.  The process of writing and planning papers is always done behind closed doors and is hard to watch – and is something I would really benefit from being seeing how other people do it.  When it comes to thesis writing, or application notes, I’ve got a few under my belt, but for some reason, I find papers more daunting.

To get to my point, All of this had me wondering what other small details graduate students are missing.  What are the tiny details that you’ve discovered that can make all the difference in getting things done right?

5 thoughts on “The small things that matter…

  1. How to prepare for presentations was a big one for me. The trick was to always restart from the beginning when you stumble. It seems (and maybe is) inefficient, but it means that the crucial first slides end up being really smooth. I find it much easier to improvise with the results than the introduction.

    I still haven’t gotten the trick with the manuscript writing either, though.

    • Ah yeah, presentations are a big one. That’s certainly something i’ve gotten a lot of practice at, although mostly before I came back for my PhD. Lets just say that a good presentation to investors is a basic requirement for any corporate success… For that, my trick was mostly just to look confident, which goes a long way to making people believe you know what you’re talking about. (Also knowing what you’re talking about helps enormously too!)

  2. Oh man, I used to love fencing! I only did it for a few months, in my first year of undergrad, and it was all just starting to come together when I hurt my knee. I was also in the badminton squad (I never made the team itself), and I think all that lunging was a really bad idea!

    • That’s awesome – I don’t actually know too many people who’ve tried it, though I’ve invited all sorts of people to come out and give it a shot. (The invitation is always open if you feel like picking it up again!)

      Actually, I have pretty bad knees, myself, and it’s all about doing it properly and not twisting or over-extending, which can leave me pretty sore for days. Took me a while to figure out just what is too much…. those were painful weeks. :P

      And, for the record, I’ve thought of lots of better analogies… but fencing was just too much fun to not drag in. (=

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